Thoughts on a Practical Legal Education

Ah, law school curriculum reform. A popular topic, and one always worth discussing, though true reform rarely occurs. The Law School Innovation Blog alerted us to a recent discussion at the Prawfs Blawg about potential 1L curriculum reform. The author of the Prawfs Blawg post noted that students fail to read cases and statutes closely enough and seem ill-prepared even after their first year. As a part of its post, The Law School Innovation Blog highlighted two comments to the original Prawfs Blawg piece, including one from a law student who complained that law school utilized too much of a “hide the ball” approach, and a response from an attorney who declared that hiding the ball is, in fact, the best method of instruction.

These issues, though, are symptoms of a much larger curricular problem, one that is not solely confined to the first year. As we all know, the first year curriculum is mostly uniform throughout the nation, focusing on the law of no jurisdiction in particular and the common law as it supposedly existed at some point in the eighteenth century. Though first year students do not typically learn the substantive law of an actual jurisdiction, the curriculum is helpful in training students in legal thinking and disabusing them of any judicial system stereotypes they picked up from their poli-sci profs. Are we really going to utilize the Rule in Shelley’s Case in our daily practice? Probably not. But that’s not really the point of the first year, which is to teach law students legal reasoning and analysis.

Despite the occasional outcry against the Socratic method, the first year curriculum is actually quite unique and helpful, despite its natural stresses. Sure, there may be law professors who delight in frightening those young would-be attorneys. But that approach has worked for many a decade, and sometimes, tradition should be emphasized, especially when it is useful.

So, let’s forget first year curriculum reform. Really, it’s the second and third years that are in need of radical overhaul, anyway. After an intensive first year, students drift away from difficult and demanding courses to focus on finding a job (no small feat these days) or perfecting their putting stroke. Many others spend that time taking interesting, though impractical, elective courses which will not serve them in the future. Although some students relish the opportunity to take “bar courses,” few law school graduates take the opportunity – or even have the opportunity – to learn the practical skills that will become their bread and butter.

Licensing entities have taken notice. Some state bars have imposed additional requirements upon law school graduates based upon the assumption that there is still something left for them to learn before entering the profession. For example, here in South Carolina, bar applicants must take a course called “Bridge The Gap,” which by its very name, suggests that there is at least a minor deficit in the education of said graduates. (The Bar has also set up a mentoring program for new attorneys). Although some institutions have implemented practical components into their curriculum, why aren’t most of the law schools out there addressing these issues?

The burden also shifts to the law firm, as the employer of the gap-bridging graduate, to inculcate the tricks of the trade. Larger firms may simply absorb this responsibility as a part of its general associate training. But in these troubling economic times, this can become a problem of import. Many law school graduates, unable to find jobs, are starting their own firms without any practical skills or experienced guidance. How did they find themselves in that position?

What to do? Instead of tweaking first year curriculum, law school administrators should consider more dramatic changes in the law school paradigm. The second and third years can be transformed into true opportunities to learn practical legal skills (as well as everyday ethical issues and the business of law). State bars should be confident that students graduating from accredited institutions have been properly trained both in the nature of substantive law and legal thinking but also practical skills that will be employed on a daily basis as lawyers. Last but not least, law students are consumers of legal education. If we expect them to spend three years of their lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars to enter our profession, there should be no gap to bridge upon graduation.